Life after the tsunami

23rd December 2005 at 00:00
A year on from the devastation in Asia, Yojana Sharma reports on the victims' road to recovery

One year after the devastating tsunami struck Asia, life is still not back to normal. Some 200,000 people were killed or are still missing, according to UN figures, a third of them children. Lives were devastated. Many were left with nothing and remain deeply traumatised.

Thousands in Somalia, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar in Southern India, Sri Lanka, Aceh in Indonesia, and The Maldives are still in temporary shelters, their livelihoods destroyed.

But schools are providing a focus for rebuilding lives, and schools themselves are not merely patched together but are being improved to enhance the quality of education.

"If we give children who survived a better chance in life, then that's a great thing and education is the best way to do that," said David Bull, director of Unicef UK, the United Nations Children's Fund.

Many school buildings were destroyed, and for months those that still stood were used as camps for the displaced, or simply for storing disaster relief supplies.

"When we asked local people what they needed, it was very surprising that all of them said, 'We want our school back,'" said Manos Ranjan of Actionaid India.

"If there's a school, a scattered and displaced community will return."

Scores of solid prefabricated schools were erected within the first six months. Uniforms, books and supplies were quickly brought in. In Sri Lanka entire sets of textbooks were reprinted with donor assistance.

"It is important to get children into school so that parents can get on with rebuilding their house, earning an income or queuing for relief," Mr Bull said.

"Building back Better" is the Unicef slogan for the affected region, where it co-ordinates international efforts in education and child health. Even the temporary schools made of prefabricated concrete panels are often better than the old schools, and have more light and ventilation.

Children in village schools in Aceh used to sit on the dirt floor. But with proper flooring and new desks and chairs, the whole environment has improved.

"Parents would not send them to school in their good clothes, which would get dirty," Mr Bull said. "Parents now feel good about sending children to school."

In tsunami-affected areas in Myanmar, primary dropout rates were already high. Parents struggling to get by found that uniforms and school supplies made all the difference in getting children back to school quickly.

In India and Sri Lanka, catch-up classes have been established for those who had not attended school for many months. The authorities are determined that educationally they should not emerge as the "lost generation".

In Aceh, Unicef paid the salaries of 1,110 substitute primary teachers and 400 childcare workers for six months to keep schools open. A huge training effort is helping teachers provide psycho-social support - community-based help to learn to cope through play and activities. This has made teachers aware of child-centred teaching methods.

"Traditional education systems in Asia have been formal, teaching from the front with the use of disciplinary measures. Now there is more listening, a more participative, child-friendly form of education," said Mr Bull.

In Aceh, it has led to a new early childhood development system. Informal day-care centres were set up after the tsunami for children whose parents were looking for work, said Susan Nicolai, Save the Children's emergency education adviser. The authorities are now training early childhood specialists for the long term. Efforts are being made to bring the poorest and the marginalised to school.

In Sri Lanka, free transport is being provided for distant schools. The authorities in Nagapattinam, in Tamil Nadu, India, have waived fees for tsunami-affected pupils for a year. In Thailand, all orphaned children will receive grants until the end of their higher education.

The next phase of rebuilding is just beginning. Unicef received $626.6 million (pound;328.8m) for tsunami recovery, one third of it from the UK.

The cash will help to pay for improved facilities.

In Aceh, separate toilets for boys and girls will mean more girls will go to school. In Thailand, some 800 schools will get new water purification systems.

At Ban Bang Mung school, in southern Thailand, even the poorest child had to pay one baht (less than a penny) for a cup of brackish, rusty water. Now they have abundant, clean, free water and can concentrate better in class.

Deputy head Thanik Thippitak described it as the "best tsunami assistance the school has received".

Raj Persaud 21

Back to school: Unicef statistics

* 318,000 traumatised children benefited from psychological and social activities funded by donors

* 3,793 separated unaccompanied children reunited with family or placed with foster parents

* 630,000 received new textbooks

* 1.4 million have received emergency education supplies, including uniforms and shoes

* 370 schools repaired

* 180 temporary or semi-permanent schools constructed

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